Not for the first time this season, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have dropped points they really shouldn’t have because the manager seems to be blinded by the potency of his strikers. It’s great to have Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to count on, but teams are usually defined by the quality of their midfield and defense, and not just by what’s in the frontline.
The 2-2 draw with Aston Villa could have been salvaged into something better, instead of watching the team slip to 8 points behind the league leaders, and in risk of losing the fourth spot if Everton win their match. Liverpool had 37 minutes and four added of injury time to continue their scoring momentum, but Aston Villa defended well and deep, with Liverpool unable to find an answer.
But the first 45 minutes of the match were the real problem for Liverpool. Rodgers started with a 4-4-2, using Sterling and Coutinho on the wings, while Gerrard and Jordan Henderson played in the middle. Actually, it doesn’t really matter who you call it in terms of numbered formations. The midfield was left empty with Henderson on his own to cover for the immobile Gerrard, while the rest of the players were too far apart to help out.
It took Rodgers two conceded goals to realize something was wrong and it wasn’t just a fluke that Villa had scored first and kept embarrassing his defense, which this time consisted of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure in the middle, which meant a lot of problems handling the speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke, which also allowed a lot of space for Andreas Weimann to roam in.
When Philippe Coutinho moved to the middle of the pitch, things looked better. Liverpool slightly neglected the left wing, but Aston Villa weren’t playing with any wingers anyway, instead using a tight diamond midfield to embarrass Henderson and Gerrard. Suddenly, Liverpool had players in proximity to each other, allowing them to score their first goal just before half time.
The second half was in complete control of the home side – Lucas came on for Coutinho, which allowed Henderson and Gerrard to move forward without having to worry about leaving vast spaces behind them. Luis Suarez moved a little bit left to cover for the absent. Liverpool looked good, got their second goal via a soft penalty, but didn’t really create any dangerous chances afterwards.
Brendan Rodgers knows that having Suarez and Sturridge together on the pitch is a problem for many teams, but he has to take advantage of the ability both players have to play a bit wider than as a central forward and not neglect his midfield. A 4-4-2 works only with two midfielders who are mobile and can cover a lot of ground without neglecting their offensive duties. Steven Gerrard, sadly, is no longer someone who can fill that role, and if he’s part of the lineup, it means Liverpool need a 3-man central midfield. The Stoke match, with Gerrard as the holding midfield while Lucas and Henderson roamed forward, was a perfect example of how it should be done.
Who should be sacrificed? It’s either Sturridge or Sterling in my opinion, but Rodgers can use a rotation. However, losing Suarez and Coutinho just takes too much of Liverpool’s firepower, and has proven to be a bad idea in the few moments Rodgers actually went through with such a plan.